For years I had trouble working my lats. I did not have a lat pulldown machine in my home gym. I wanted that fabled ‘V” taper, so I had to find alternative exercises.
I had limited options. I bought a power rack that included a pull-up bar. No matter what equipment you have or don’t have, there’s a solution.
This guide will outline the best lat pulldown alternatives. Let’s check it out!
A lat pulldown is a variation of the pull-up exercise. To do a pull-up, you’re pulling your body weight up to the bar. To do a lat pulldown, you sit on a bench and pull the weight down to you. It’s an exercise that’s commonly used if you don’t have the upper body strength for pull-ups.
A lat pulldown works the latissimus dorsi muscles of the back. Also called the lats, they give your back that classic “V” shape. Lat pulldowns also involve the biceps, shoulders, other back muscles, and forearms. Yet, lat pulldowns done the right way should put the focus mainly on the lats.
Before looking at the alternatives, let’s look at the benefits of a lat pulldown machine. This is a machine that’s a worthwhile addition to any home gym.
It’s an upper/lower cable pulley machine. That means you can do several exercises with it. Exercises include several lat pulldown variations. You can also use the upper pulley for arm, shoulder, and chest work. The lower pulley works well for seated rows, curls, and leg work.
What if you can’t afford a lat pulldown machine? Or, what if you don’t have the room? A lat pulldown attachment is a good option. You’ll find one available for power racks and Smith machines. Also, Bowflex and single stack home gyms usually come with a lat pulldown station.
Of course, if these are not options that work for you, you will need alternative exercises.
When doing a lat pulldown, you can use any number of bar attachments. The standard lat bar is a long straight bar with angled ends. Also, there’s a V-bar for close grip pulldowns. You can also use a standard lat bar with parallel grip handles.
Finally, you can use D-handles or a triceps rope. In addition, you can pull the bar to your upper chest, or behind your head. Each of these attachments or variations adds variety to the exercise.
No doubt you’ve heard the term “mind-muscle connection”. It’s a common term used in bodybuilding and weight training. It means that you need to connect mentally with the muscles you’re training. This is so you can feel the correct muscles working.
One of the problems of training the back is that you can’t see it. Think about it. You can watch your chest or arms when you train. You can see these muscles contracting as you work out. That makes it easier to feel the exercise. With back, not feeling the muscles during your workout is a common complaint. Instead, people may feel it in the biceps or shoulders.
What’s the solution?
It all comes down to exercise form. With the lat pulldown, your chest should be up and out. Your shoulders need to be pulled back. Then, you have to start the pull in the lats. Your biceps are just hooks. This is the mindset you should use for any back exercise.
An important point to make is that the lat pulldown develops the width of the back. (1)
That means that any alternative exercise needs to do the same. This point eliminates rowing movements as a lat pulldown alternative. Why? Rowing movements develop thickness. Your back routine should include rows, you need back thickness.
However, you have to also include something for width. If you want complete development, you can’t replace one with the other.
Here are the best lat pulldown alternatives.
A pull-up is one of the best exercises you can add to your program. It’s a compound exercise. It works the lats, most of the back, biceps, and forearms. The performance of the pull-up is a lot like a lat pulldown.
What if you are not strong enough to do pull-ups for reps? In fact, lat pulldowns are the usual suggestion for individuals that can’t do pull-ups. If you’re looking for a good alternative, you may have to work up to pull-ups.
Like lat pulldowns, pull-ups are a lat width exercise. As noted, if you want to replace the lat pulldown, replace it with another width movement.
You can do a pull-up can using one of several grip widths. If you do it with an underhand grip, palms facing you, it’s called a chin up. Chins are more of a direct biceps exercise. As noted, you can do standard pull-ups with an overhand grip. The width of your grip is up to you.
You’ll need a pull-up bar for this exercise. A doorway bar is a good value and good option. You could add a wall-mounted pull-up bar to your home gym. Any power rack will have a pull-up bar. A Smith machine may have one as well. Finally, you can do this exercise in any outdoor playground.
Here’s how to perform a standard medium-width grip pull-up:
- Use an overhand grip and grab a pull-up bar. Your hands should be about an inch wider than shoulder width.
- Hang at arm’s length. You can wrap your legs around each other, or bend at the knees so they are behind you. Cross them at the ankles for stability.
- Flex and tense your lats. Stick your chest out and at the same time pull your shoulders back.
- Using your lat muscles, begin to pull your body up.
- Pull from a dead hang. Pull with your lats first, then let your biceps help.
- Pull your body up to the bar.
- Hold and flex for a 2 count.
- Slowly lower your body under control back to the start position.
Unless you’re an advanced bodybuilder or fitness enthusiast, you may have to work up to your rep goal. You should attempt to do 6-8 reps on this exercise. As part of a typical back routine, you might try 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps. Some bodybuilders and athletes aim for a rep goal. This might be 25 reps over as many sets as it takes.
Are you new to exercise? Or, are you not that strong in the standard pull-up? A good variation is the assisted pull-up using a barbell. In this case, you’re sitting on the floor and using a barbell to do your pull-ups. A power rack or stand is helpful because you can adjust how high you put the bar. You can also place a broom handle across two chairs. This option is important. If you have limited space or equipment, you can do this alternative.
You do this exercise the same way as the standard pull-up.
Resistance band pulldowns are a good alternative to a regular lat pulldown. In this case, you will need to anchor your band to a bar or post. You can do these kneeling on one or both knees. You can also do these standing up.
Here’s how to do this exercise:
- Kneel and grab the resistance band handles. Most likely these are D-handles.
- Use a shoulder-width grip with your palms facing down.
- Push your chest out. At the same time, pull your shoulders back.
- Flex and tense your lats.
- Begin the pull with your lats. Think of your biceps as hooks.
- Pull the bands to your body, hold and flex.
- Slowly return to the bands to the start position.
This exercise is a good variation if you don’t have access to a pull-up bar. It’s also a good choice if you’re not strong enough to do pull-ups.
As noted, the difference between pull-ups and chin-ups is your hand position. As noted, by using an underhand grip, the chin-up becomes more of a bicep exercise. Still, the lats are also involved.
To perform this exercise, use a close underhand grip. This is done the same way as a standard pull-up. The only difference is that the pull should begin with the biceps.
You can do pullovers with a dumbbell, straight bar, or an EZ bar. You’ll need a bench to do this exercise. The pullover is usually thought of as a chest exercise. It also works the lats. You can think of pullovers as a lat width exercise.
Here’s how to do this exercise:
- You can lie across the bench, or lengthwise with your head a little off the end.
- Bring a dumbbell up to your chest and grab one end with both your hands. You can also use a straight bar or EZ bar. If you’re using a bar, use a shoulder-width grip.
- Hold the dumbbell or bar up above your head. This is the start position.
- Slowly lower the dumbbell or bar back behind your head. Keep your elbows tight to your body and your arms straight.
- Lower the dumbbell or bar until it’s a little behind and below the back of your head. Go as far as comfortable.
- Hold and flex your lats. You’ll also feel this in your chest.
- Slowly and with control bring the dumbbell or bar back over your head.
Back in the day, bodybuilders used this exercise as part of a superset with squats. The classic 20-rep squat program helped make this movement popular. It is one of the few exercises you can use in a pushing workout or a pulling workout.
What should you be doing for sets and reps? That’s goal-dependent. Let’s look at the typical rep suggestions based on goals.
- For strength: 4-6 reps using a heavy weight
- For size: 4-10 reps using a moderately heavy weight
- For endurance: 10-15 reps using a moderately light weight
- For general conditioning: 8-12 reps using a moderate weight
Let’s assume your goal is to build some size and strength. Here’s a typical back routine. You can do this as part of the popular push/pull/legs workout split.
If strength or size is your goal, deadlifts are a must. The first two sets are warmups. The final three are your working sets. Add weight with every set.
Use a pyramid approach: 5 Working sets x 15,12,8,6,4 reps.
You can use any lat pulldown alternative exercise.
3 sets x as many reps as possible
3 sets x 8 reps
No matter what your goals are, you should perform your reps with complete control. Rep tempo can be 2-3 seconds for the concentric, or positive phase, a 2-second pause, and 4-6 seconds for the eccentric, or negative phase.
The sample routine is only one example. When setting up your own routine, think in terms of width and thickness. If size or strength is your goal, always start with deadlifts. This is a whole-body exercise that builds mass and strength. If not, you can replace deadlifts with the back exercise of your choice.
Next, choose your lat pulldown alternative. Bodyweight alternatives such as pull-ups are a good choice. As noted, lat pulldowns are often used when individuals can’t do many pull-ups. That’s because it’s not always easy to pull your body weight up.
Still, by taking breaks between reps, you can build your strength. Set a rep goal of 4 or 5. Do one rep at a time, rest, and do another one. You can also do assisted pull-ups with a bar.
From there, add a thickness, or rowing, exercise. You can do more than one width and one thickness exercise.
Are your goals size and strength? You’ll need to add weight to the bar every other week. You should be trying to add weight every other workout. Keep total sets in the 9-10 range.
If you’re training for conditioning or endurance, adding weight is not as important. If the weight becomes too light, you can add weight to your exercises. You can also keep your total sets in the 9-10 range.
Not everyone can afford a lat pulldown machine. Not to mention, not every home gym is big enough for one. There are quite a few alternatives to lat pulldowns. The best lat pulldown alternatives can help you achieve a classic back. Why wait? Use our guide to find the lat pulldown alternatives that work for you!
- Delavier Frédéric. (2010). Back Lat Pulldowns, p.86, 91. In Strength training anatomy. essay, Human Kinetics.